A recent article is bringing attention to a longstanding problem in our criminal justice system, not just in Maryland, but nationwide – overworked, underpaid, and overwhelmed, public defenders. The problem not only undermines the integrity of the system, but threatens the constitutional rights of accused defendants, as well.

What is a Public Defender?

The constitution guarantees those convicted of a crime the right to an attorney. As you may know from TV or movies, if someone cannot afford an attorney, the state will appoint an attorney for the defendant. Those appointed attorneys are public defenders, and they are paid by the state.

Juveniles and minors are certainly capable of committing crimes, just as adults are, and the criminal justice system has laws that are specially designed to handle juvenile offenders. Being a minor does not mean you give up any constitutional rights, but questions over how minors in Maryland’s criminal justice system are handled are currently causing some controversy.

Minors in the System

Generally, the criminal justice system treats minors differently than adults for a number of reasons. The first is that the law recognizes that minors are not fully formed in terms of logic, decision making, or maturity.

Constitutionality can often be a question of inches. What an officer does, or where he or she goes in the process of investigating or arresting someone can be the difference between evidence being constitutional and thus admissible or being excluded.

Officer Smells Drugs

A recent case dealt with the question of what happens when an officer’s head comes just inches too far into a defendant’s vehicle. The case arose when an officer stopped a man for speeding. When the man rolled down his window, the officer testified that he smelled an odor of marijuana when he learned his head into the car through the open window. Another officer was called to the scene, who conducted a scan with a trained police dog. The dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs, and the defendant himself admitted to it.

A judge has acquitted a Maryland law enforcement officer involved in the death of Freddie Gray. No matter how you feel about the ultimate decision, the case continues to provide teaching points about how our criminal justice system works.

One Interesting aspect of the recent acquittals is how it points out the differing standards between civil and criminal liability. Even though no officers were found guilty of any crime, we hear “beyond a reasonable doubt” a lot in TV and movies. But every now and then, we see it in action.

Facts of the Gray Case

The United States Supreme Court has once again defined the limits of the Fourth Amendment when it comes to what officers can and cannot do during a routine traffic stop. The decision, which potentially expands the scope of the police ability to search and seize, could have significant constitutional ramifications.

Man Stopped Illegally

The case involves a home in Utah, which police believed was being used to sell drugs. Police stopped a man who was in his car and had previously left that house to question him. The officer then checked the man’s license, and found there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Based on this, the police searched the car, found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine, and arrested him.

We are all familiar with cross examination in trial—it seems to be the highlight of every legal TV show or televised trial. What you may not be aware of is that the constitution’s sixth amendment actually guarantees defendants a right to cross examine—that is, the right to question their accusers (or in criminal cases, the state and its witnesses).

Defendant has Probation Revoked

A recent Maryland appellate court case discusses the parameters of that right when it comes to a probation revocation hearing. The case involves a defendant who pleaded guilty to a robbery charge. His sentence involved probation. During his probation, he tested positive for marijuana,  thus violating his probation, and as a result was sentenced to serve prison time for the robbery.

In 2013, Maryland revoked the death penalty. That may have been because trials are imperfect, and thus, the possibility of taking an innocent person’s life is too great a risk. That left Maryland’s highest penalty being life without parole.

But with the change came a new problem—unlike there was with the death penalty, there are few standards that a judge or jury need to abide by to sentence someone to life. This potentially leaves what is known as the second most severe penalty in our American justice system to chance, risking inconsistent standards and uncertainty in sentencing.

Bill Seeks to Create Standards

Sometimes it is interesting to see how issues that look like they have nothing to do with criminal justice end up affecting criminal justice. Such was the case this week, when the United States Supreme Court made a ruling based upon whether Puerto Rico was a sovereign state or not.

Can Puerto Rico Prosecute?

We know that Puerto Rico is not a U.S. State. In fact, it has its own constitution and its own government, a power given to it by the United States in 1950. Still, the country is tied to the U.S. Federal Government and its powers are provided to it by the U.S. Essentially, Congress makes the rules. So can Puerto Rico prosecute someone who has already been prosecuted by a federal court without running afoul of the double jeopardy clause?

The constitution guarantees us a jury of our peers in criminal matters. It is one of the most fundamental constitutional rights that we have. But our judicial system is also intended to be racially blind, and selecting jurors based on race or nationality is prohibited. Often these two seemingly contradictory principles collide, as they did recently in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

African-American Jurors Stricken From Jury

The case involved an African-American man who was convicted in Georgia of murdering an elderly white woman. The jury was made up of jurors who were all white. The four African-American potential jurors, were eliminated from the jury before the trial. Twenty years after the conviction, the man’s attorneys argued to the Supreme Court that the selection of that jury was racially based.

Maryland is again looking to be one of the more progressive states in the nation when it comes to criminal justice reform, as legislators have agreed to pass a sweeping crime reform bill. The bill is unique in that it strengthens criminal penalties in some areas, but shifts the focus of criminal penalties in others.

The New Law

The new law, called the Justice Reinvestment Act, has a number of changes to Maryland’s criminal justice laws. The new law allows those who have finished 25% of sentences to be administratively released. The provision would only apply to nonviolent drug offenses, or thefts where the amount was less than $1,500. In some cases, if public safety is threatened, a parole commission can opt not to provide the early release.